Cover Story

National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration

Some folks made a killing depleting the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Wait ‘til you see how much they’ll make not to fish there anymore.
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Cover image for Oct 13, 2010

National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration / The news came innocuously enough, in a press release earlier this year from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. As a result of former President George W. Bush’s designation of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a marine national monument in June 2006, Congress appropriated funds to compensate the owners of seven bottomfish licenses and 15 lobster licenses because they would no longer be able to fish there. The bottom-fishermen would share $2.2 million, the lobster fishermen $4.3 million. All licenses had been given out for free.

In the bottomfish fishery, a study found fishermen were unsustainably depleting the stocks of slow-growing fishes like ‘opakapaka and onaga. Their catch had dwindled to 63,249 pounds last year from 250,000 pounds, the average in the first years of the fishery, according to the press release. Some environmentalists wondered why the fishermen should be rewarded for that? In addition, the Bush proclamation gave them five years to wind down their operations.

The bottom-fishermen had turned down an offer from the Pew Environment Group to buy their licenses in exchange for an immediate end to fishing in the area. Pew proposed to use its tax returns as a basis for compensation, a plan that one fisherman, Gary Dill, called “insulting.” The talks went nowhere.

The lobster fishery was much bigger and hugely profitable and was stopped after a bitter court battle in 2000. Catches had fallen from 2 million lobsters in 1983 to 38,000 in 1995, even after fishing was suspended in 1992 and 1993.

Even those figures don’t tell the whole story. In 1983, the fishermen reported catching an additional half a million lobsters, or 28 percent more, that were undersized or carrying eggs, and throwing them back in the sea, as required. A 1996 NOAA study found that virtually all died anyway. By then, the proportion of illegal lobsters had risen to 62 percent of the legal catch, mostly juveniles. Instead of forcing the fishermen to use methods that would ensure a higher survival rate of the illegal ones, the government changed the rule that year and allowed the fishermen to keep the small ones, which were categorized as “garnishes,” as well as the egg-bearing females.

The players

After two temporary closures by NOAA, the Honolulu federal court closed the fishery again in 2000 because of still-disputed evidence that the collapse of the lobster population had triggered mass starvation among monk seal pups, and that in turn caused a 5 percent yearly decline in the monk seal population. The fishery was never reopened, presumably because the lobster stocks never recovered, and the monk seal pups in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are still starving.

“It’s precisely because fisheries mismanagement in Hawaii has been so abysmal that the marine national monument was created,” says Jay Nelson of Pew, who coordinated support for the monument. “The irony is that it’s only because of the definitive nature of the monument designation that the fishermen were able to argue for compensation.”

Still, why would taxpayers have to compensate a group of fishermen who made fabulous profits in the ’80s and ’90s by depleting one of the world’s last pristine stocks of spiny lobsters and, as a result of that depletion, hadn’t fished lobsters there in 10 years?

I wondered exactly who these lobstermen were and how much they got, so I asked

“The specific payoff amounts are proprietary information so I cannot disclose it,” Wende Goo, NOAA’s Honolulu spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

Intrigued, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request and eventually got a number of documents. One was a 12-page letter to the head of NOAA in 2007. It argued that each of the 15 lobster-license holders should be given $1.632,175.74 in compensation. It was written by Jim Cook, the president of the Hawaii Longline Association and the Association of NWHI Lobster Permit Holders.

In 2006, he was also chairman of the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council, known as Wespac, when it recommended that the bottomfish and lobster fishermen be compensated by the taxpayer for the closure of fishery, according to the press release.

Wespac is one of eight US councils charged with advising NOAA on fisheries matters, but is widely known as the one that coddles its fishermen more than any other, often to the detriment of Hawaii’s fish. That’s generally ascribed to two factors: the exceptional political skills of Wespac’s longtime executive director, Kitty Simonds (who declined to be interviewed for this article), and the backing Wespac gets from US Sen. Daniel Inouye, a long-time member and former chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which funds NOAA, a unit of the Commerce Department.

The 12-page document I got listed the 15 members of the lobster permit-holders group. They include Cook and his partner, Sean Martin, another former Wespac chairman, who own Vessel Management Associates (VMS), a company that operates a small fleet of longline fishing boats (one license); Nicarguan-born brothers Jorge and Rodwell Morgan, owners of Seafood Inc., a Pompano, Fla.-based company represented in Honolulu by Bryan Ho, a lawyer and former member of Wespac (three licenses); Edward Timoney, the husband of former Wespac member Timm Timoney who is also the owner of a bottomfish license and was compensated an unknown amount for that license; and Larry Mehau, a former policeman known for his connection to local organized crime, who runs a security company and is one of five license holders who no longer own a fishing boat.

The other lobster license holders are Deborah Prescott, Craig Yeakel, John Hilliard Jr., Jerry Ray, Kristofer Knutsen, John Myking, Daniel T. Gunn, Peter Lindgren and Katrina Bowyer. She wrote she only fished lobster in 1997 and 1998, when the average catch per trap had fallen to 0.48 lobster from 2.71 lobsters in 1983, the peak year.

Between 1990 and 1996, VMS, the company co-owned by on-and-off Wespac chairmen Cook and Martin, was fined six times for illegal fishing, according to an investigation by the Cascadia Times. The largest fine, for $29,500, was imposed after the Petite One was caught with nearly 1,000 undersized lobsters and more than 500 females with eggs. Exactly what role Cook and Martin played in getting the ban on undersized and egg-bearing female lifted remains unclear. Cook declined to be interviewed.

In 2007, Inouye passed on, to the head of NOAA, Cook’s 12-page argument. In a cover letter, he wrote: “In light of the impending closure of the healthy lobster fishery in the NWHI, our fishermen will be severely impacted and I am strongly committed to giving them their due.”

Inouye had effectively blocked for a decade attempts by both Bush and Bill Clinton to turn the NWHI into a no-take zone.

I asked Inouye’s spokesman how the lobster fishery, which was closed in 2000 for lack of lobsters, could have been considered “healthy” in 2007. He did not respond.

Cook’s argument, echoed by Inouye, is that the fishery was perfectly healthy when it was unjustly closed in 2000, that there was no reason to close it and that the lobster population has increased since then.

Cook says the dramatic reduction in catch was due entirely to a well-documented downturn in the marine productivity cycle, which means the amount of all marine life, starting with plankton, rises and falls because of changes in temperatures and currents.

Big Money

Cook argued that over the life of the fishery, each vessel earned from its lobsters a before-tax profit of $151,066 a year, a 27 percent return, even though they fished lobster for only half the year and fished tuna with long lines the other half. The license holders should thus be compensated by that amount multiplied by another 15 years — $1.632,175.74. He also asserted that the fishermen would prefer earning that money rather than taking it because they find the lobster-fishing lifestyle “extremely satisfying.”

But absent in the documents provided by NOAA was evidence of who got how much. So I filed a second request, and found out that indeed all 15 members of the permit-holders association got $288,502 each. As for the bottomfish-license holders, just how the $2.2 million pot was divided is being kept secret with no explanation: Only the range was released. It goes from $83,000 to $725,276.

“The taxpayers of America should be outraged that Jim Cook and his cronies got nearly a third of a million bucks each for dead permits in a fishery long closed due to overfishing and mismanagement,” fumed former Wespac member Rick Gaffney, who runs recreational fishing businesses.

Among the documents released by NOAA was a May 2009 letter in which John Myking, one of the vessel owners, commented on NOAA’s proposed compensation amount.

“That’s about equivalent to one lobster trip,” he said, suggesting that Cook’s estimated profits for a half-year season were considerably understated.

Jerry Ray, another one-time lobsterman, went further. He wrote in a public comment that, based on the catch-and-release results of studies funded by NOAA that he performed up to 2008, there were enough lobsters out there to clear $1 million per trip.

“If someone thinks we are getting ripped, they are right!” he wrote.

So I tried to find out if, as Ray suggested, the lobsters had made a comeback. I had seen several when I had snorkeled off Midway and Maro Reef a few years ago. The conventional wisdom among marine scientists in Honolulu was that they had not, but I was curious to see the science.

Surely some populations, left to their own devices, had multiplied? And if the NOAA scientists, Wespac and the fishermen were one happy family, surely some funding had been found to track lobster numbers, since they had hired fishermen like Ray.

“Nicely done”

Turns out that sometimes, marine science bends to political expediency and that there’s a strange kind of omertá –the Sicilian law of silence–among some NOAA marine scientists in Hawaii.

I asked Joseph O’Malley, a NOAA scientist working on lobsters since 2002, whether he thought their numbers had increased since that year. He declined to answer or be interviewed and in an e-mail referred me to Goo, the spokeswoman, with a copy to Gerard DiNardo, a more senior lobster scientist who also had declined comment. “Nicely done,” DiNardo replied in an to O’Malley that he also sent to me by mistake.

So I posed the question to Goo. She wrote back: “The research conducted by the science center to assess the population status of lobster ended 10 or so years ago. Although we have continued to conduct research on lobster, it does not address the stock status.”

This allowed Cook’s allies in NOAA to write truthfully in an official document that the agency “is not aware of any written documentation showing that lobster stocks are overfished,” as Cook reports in his letter.

But nor has NOAA suggested the lobsters have returned.

So the hottest marine scientific debate in Hawaii of the last 20 years–whether the lobstermen were responsible for the decline of the iconic monk seals in the NWHI and whether the lobsters have recovered–had resulted in a “don’t study” position by NOAA, the main marine science agency here.

This conveniently allowed the fishermen and their advocates to collect considerable sums for not fishing lobsters that may or may not be there.